Freak shows: A dehumanizing display

Did you know that Coney Island, New York, still hosts a sideshow with 10 performers. Among them are people with disabilities described in their materials as Lil’ Miss Firefly, nicknamed “the Midget of Mischief” and Mat Fraser, who Coney Island USA identifies as “the foremost international spokesman for the disability rights community.” The sideshow refers to these individuals as “‘born different’ performers who think the talented and handicapped have as much right to be rockstars on stage as doctors and lawyers.” Coney Island USA continues to use language such as  “home of freaks, wonders, and human curiosities” in slogans to this day.

Yellow and red striped tents of a circus against a blue sky
Freak Shows

When Mary Ann Bevan’s husband passed away in 1914, she faced a difficult dilemma as a single mother needing to feed four children. She eventually became desperate, declaring herself the “ugliest woman in the world” and joined the Ringling Brothers traveling freak show. In choosing to put herself through daily humiliation, Bevan managed to support herself and her children successfully until her death in 1933, at age 59.

Bevan’s perceived unattractiveness, however, was an inaccurate judgment according to those who had known her earlier in her life. In fact, in Dr. Harvey Cushing’s 1927 letter of complaint to Time magazine, Cushing claimed that “(Bevan), previously a vigorous and good looking young woman, has become the victim of a disease known as acromegaly…”

Mary Ann Bevan was a subject of hundreds and hundreds of freak shows, all of which displayed her for her “ugliness.” Indeed, people paid large sums of money to look upon a woman simply upon the premise that she was difficult to look at.

Alongside Bevan would usually sit other so-called “freaks”, most of whom were simply individuals with physical disabilities. Some were missing limbs, some were conjoined twins, and still others were deemed either “giants” or “dwarfs”. The common denominator between them all, however, was clear. As explained in Rosemarie Thompson’s Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, showmen would create “a ‘freak’ or ‘human curiosity’ from an ordinary person who had a visible physical disability or an otherwise atypical body” (Thomson 61).

The “ugliness” of Bevan seated beside the other people with disabilities clearly demonstrated that to these showmen and their audiences, ugliness and disability were to be considered interchangeable. If this were not dehumanizing enough, freak show acts were often coupled with phrases like “What is it?” on the surrounding signage and advertisements.

The popularity of such freak shows began as early as the 17th century in England, and had spread to the United States by the early 19th century. One of the earliest to make it big in the business of freak shows in the United States was the famous P.T. Barnum, later a partner in the creation of Barnum and Bailey’s circus act.

Barnum began his career as a showman with the purchase of a woman named Joice Heth, a slave who was blind.  He called her “the 161 year-old nurse of George Washington” (Hurst 90). Her appearances somehow managed to bring Barnum absurd amounts of money, simply on account of her being blind, elderly, and African American, and representing everything an American of the time might have abhorred. Heth’s case, similar to Bevan’s, did not only display the inherent exploitation and humiliation of an individual for another’s financial gain. Furthermore, it exemplified the ideology that such “afflictions” as ethnicity, appearance, or disability were similarly negative traits that warranted exploitation. As explained by Rosemarie Thomson, these examples displayed “in public those perceived as the embodiment of what collective America took itself not to be” (Thomson 59).

Barnum’s success with Joice Heth led to the eventual hiring of other people with disabilities, categorized as “freaks.” They included conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker, a family named “the Lucases,” who had albinism, and possibly his most famous, “Tom Thumb.” Charles Stratton was ten years old when he was hired by P.T. Barnum, hardly old enough to make the decision to work for Barnum on his own. Barnum took advantage of a young boy’s malleability, building him up to be the star of his show and changing his identity as he saw fit. Beyond the unethical practices that are freak shows as a whole, Barnum’s coercive hiring of Charles Stratton as Tom Thumb took things to a new level. As Barnum says himself in his autobiography, “He was exceedingly bashful, but after some coaxing he was induced to converse with me…” (Barnum, 1855).

This exploitation of a ten year-old boy acts as a microcosm of the larger issue at hand when dealing with the freak shows of the 19th and early 20th centuries. While many of the people called “freaks” were paid handsomely, no amount of money can replace a person’s dignity. Barnum was a leader in the business of stealing humanity from people, creating “human curiosities” to entertain curious humans. It seems the idea of “human curiosity” is one that defines how freak shows captured a nation’s attention for so long. Showmen like P.T. Barnum took advantage of human nature’s natural disposition to gawk at what it finds unusual, piquing the curiosity of people for decades. In exploiting this disposition, showmen had a societal impact, exacerbating the notion that disability was something to be gawked at and shamed by the masses. Instead of appreciating differences, freak shows mock, disrespect, and exploit these differences for financial gain.

Freak shows were a major player in the American entertainment scene for the majority of the 19th century, and did not begin to lose popularity until the 1890s. By the 1950s, freak shows had all but disappeared in America. Multiple factors led to the demise of the freak show. As medicine advanced, it was discovered that many of the “curiosities” were simply rare medical conditions, a factor which decreased the level of interest for much of their audiences. The beginnings of other forms of entertainment, such as television and radio, also drove down demand. Perhaps the fatal blow to the age of freak shows was the disability rights movement, finally opening people’s eyes to the discrimination and social impact emerging from this form of entertainment (Crockett, 2014).

In the history of disability rights, freak shows represent only 0ne of the many atrocities that have been visited on people with disabilities. These “freaks,” like all people with disabilities were human beings with emotions, thoughts, wants, and needs. Disability is not a barrier in and of itself to one’s ability to live a functional, happy life. These barriers appear as a result of societal structures, whether intentional or not, and create a world in which disability becomes otherness. Freak shows took advantage of this otherness for decades in America, highlighting and ostracizing those who were different from perceived norms.


Discussion Questions:

How do you see freak shows affecting the stigma towards people with disabilities?

What distinguishes marginalization of people based on their otherness from celebration of diversity?

How does making a spectacle of people with disabilities marginalize them?

How does contemporary media portray people with disabilities? Do you find these portrayals offensive or not? What makes the difference between an offensive and inoffensive portrayal?




Primary Sources:

Barnum, Phineas T. The Life of P.T. Barnum. New York: Redfield, 1855. Print.

“Coney Island Circus Sideshow.”  Coney Island U.S.A. Coney Island U.S.A.,Web. 

Secondary Sources:

Burch, Susan. “Barnum, P.T.” Encyclopedia of American Disability History. Vol. 1. New York: Facts On File, 2009. 90-92. Print.

Crockett, Zachary. “The Rise and Fall of Circus Freakshows.” Priceonomics. N.p., 30 Apr. 2014. Web. 02 July 2014.

Thomson, Rosemarie G. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 1997. Print.